I discovered war cake quite by accident. One day when my daughter asked me if we could make up a batch of poor man’s pudding, I discovered that I could no longer find my favourite recipe online. When I searched for a new recipe, I came up with one that looked more or less right, except it had raisins in it. And this recipe was subtitled “war cake.”
Figuring it was just another name for this frugal dish, I printed off the war cake recipe and gave it to my daughter. It turns out, though, I had stumbled upon a completely different and delicious dessert!
History of War Cakes
War cake dates back to the American civil war, and was popular on both sides of the Atlantic during the WWI and depression eras. The recipe is characterized by the absence of milk, butter and eggs – ingredients that would have been scarce during wartime.
Shortening replaces the butter that would be in most cake recipes, and you’ll notice that the only leavening is provided by the baking soda in hot water.
The hot water also replaces the milk and eggs for the purpose of providing moisture. If you find the cake dry, you can increase the moisture by placing a shallow pan of water on the bottom rack of your oven during baking.
No-egg, no-milk, no-butter cake – but still moist and delicious!
(Image from a photo by Celeste Lindell/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)
You’ll notice that this recipe uses two cups of brown sugar, a more expensive ingredient even today. Some other war cakes have a smaller amount of sugar, and one or two replace the brown sugar with white. I’ve also seen some war cake recipes that use corn syrup and molasses. If you decide to make these substitutions, just be aware that each sweetener gives slightly different results in the finished cake.
The pound of raisins is also a bit of a splurge for families on a budget, as are the optional nuts. If you are trying to be frugal, do leave out the nuts. But the raisins (and the brown sugar) give this cake a good deal of its texture and flavour. Don’t skimp on them!
Remember that the recipe makes two loaves, and that it’s supposed to be a little bit of an extravagance when you are otherwise living a rather austere life.
War Cake Recipe
2 cups dark brown sugar
2 cups hot water
2 tbsp shortening
1 tsp each: cinnamon and nutmeg
1/2 tsp each ground cloves and ginger
1 lb raisins
1/2 lb chopped walnuts and/or almonds (optional)
3 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda dissolved in 1 tsp hot water
In a saucepan, mix together the sugar, hot water, shortening, spices and raisins. Bring to a boil over medium heat and cook 5 minutes.
Set aside to cool for up to several hours, stirring often. The mixture will thicken up during the cooling period. Don’t rush and add the flour too soon, or the cake won’t bake properly.
Gradually mix in flour and soda. The batter should be thick. Pour into two well oiled and floured loaf pans.
Bake 45-60 minutes in a preheated 350°F oven, or until a toothpick inserted in the cake comes out clean. The resulting loaf should look like a darker, more dense version of banana bread.
Serve slices with a little butter at breakfast or tea time, or as a sweet finish to a hearty meal like stew or shepherd’s pie.